Monthly Archives: September 2004

19 – The greatest leap

I’m something of an Olympics tragic. The Athens Games provided plenty of the right sort of drug to feed my addiction: wonderful performances, surprises, disappointments, euphoria, and copious Australian success.

There is something particularly special about world records, and as usual we saw a number of them at these Games. There are two clear patterns with world records. Firstly, when world records are set, they are almost always only very slightly better than the previous record. Secondly, in most events, world records are set fairly regularly, and the world mark follows a pattern of steady improvement over time, reflecting a general improvement in standards for all competitors.

But there is one athletic event that completely violates these patterns, and one performance in that event that still seems amazing 36 years later. The event is long jump, and the performance is Bob Beamon’s winning leap at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. This jump was so incredible and so much further than any previous jump that it is hard to convey the real magnitude of the achievement. To give an early hint, it would have been sufficient to easily win the Gold medal at this year’s Olympics, by the huge margin of 31 cm.

First let’s set the scene. At the time of the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the long jump record stood at 8.35 m, or about 27 ft 5 in. In the previous eight years the record had been raised six times by an average of 4 cm, an inch or two, per time. It was behaving like most other athletic events, with regular small increases in the record.

The next big target for long jumpers was considered to be 28 ft (8.53 m) but it seemed a long way off. Some considered 28 ft to be impossible, including the form jumper at the Olympics, 23-year-old New Yorker Bob Beamon.

The long jump final in Mexico was on the 18th of October 1968. On his first jump, Beamon tore down the runway and leapt further than builders of the rail for the electronic measuring device had allowed. As Beamon kissed the ground and then looked up to the sky to thank God, officials had to scramble around for an old-fashioned tape measure.

In the delay, a veteran sports writer announced in the Press Box, “Gentlemen, I believe we have just witnessed the first 28 foot long jump in history.” However, the electronic scoreboard eventually revealed that Beamon had in fact jumped past 29 feet: to be exact, 29 ft 2½ in (8.90 m). He had beaten the old record by 55 cm, or almost 2 feet.

Lynn Davis, the Welshman who held the Olympic, European and Commonwealth records, said to prior world record holder Ralph Boston, “I can’t go on. What’s the point?” One competitor said to Beamon, “Man, you have destroyed this event.” Beamon probably didn’t hear him, because at this time he was suffering a ‘cataplectic seizure’, a paralysing physical reaction following great emotion.

How great was this jump? Even allowing for the fact that it was at altitude and had the maximum allowable wind assistance, it was almost miraculous. Consider the following.

  • Nobody broke the previous world record of 8.35 again until 1975.
  • There was only a single jump in excess of the previous world record during the following decade.
  • Beamon himself never again jumped in excess of 27 ft, although he did keep competing.
  • It was another 12 years before even 28 ft was broken again.

  • Nobody got within 30cm of the record until Carl Lewis jumped 8.62 in 1981.
  • Beamon’s record was not broken until 1991, when Mike Powell just edged past it with a jump of 8.95 m.
  • That is still the only legal jump in history to exceed Bob Beamon’s leap. (In the same competition as Powell, Carl Lewis broke the record first, but with an illegal jump due to too much tail wind.)
  • Beamon’s jump is still the Olympic record, easily the oldest record in the book.

The golden age of long jump was 1982 to 1995, when the best jump of the year equaled or exceeded 8.70 in 10 years out of the 14, mainly thanks to Carl Lewis. He was clearly the best long jumper of all time, and was considered by far the most likely to break Beamon’s record as he recorded a long list of jumps close to the record, but he never quite did it.

These days, nobody gets anywhere near the record. There was one jump of 8.65 m in 2000, but apart from that, nobody has exceeded 8.60 m in the past 9 years (remember, Beamon jumped 8.90). The winning jumps at the past three Olympics have been 8.59, 8.55 and 8.50 m. Many of the world’s best jumpers competing in Athens, full time professionals with the best training and equipment money can buy, have life-time best jumps lower than 8.35, the record that had stood in 1968 at the time of Beamon’s incredible jump.

The long jump clearly is different to other athletic disciplines. It doesn’t progress steadily onwards and upwards like other events. In the 36 years from 1968 to 2004, its world record was only broken once, while for comparison the high jump record was broken 19 times. The world record high jump from 1968 was the minimum qualifying height for the final in Athens in 2004.

Who knows when the long jump record will be broken again. It could easily be a very long time. Unless there emerges some new superstar who eclipses Carl Lewis, I could easily imagine Bob Beamon’s Olympic record lasting through the 21st century. But then, maybe there will be another freakish jump from someone unexpected.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

18 – Thinking like an economist 2: Decisions, decisions

Economics is fundamentally about decisions, either understanding the decisions that people make, or helping people (especially governments) to make decisions.

Some decisions are hard, but not complex. Offer my daughter Rosie a choice between two packets of potato chips of different flavours, and you are likely to set off a protracted period of agonising over the decision.

Some decisions are easy, even though they are embedded in complexity. A government decision to protect a particular piece of native vegetation in an agricultural region may have a range of ecological, economic and social consequences, but may nevertheless be easy to make if an iconic endangered species is discovered living in it.

But when a decision is complex, and the “right” choice is not obvious, the decision maker can benefit from some help in tackling it in a thorough and systematic way. Economists can provide this help, with advice on the application of “decision theory” or “decision analysis”. We are not the only discipline that makes use of decision theory, but we make more extensive use of it than most because of our particular interest in decisions. Economists focus on decisions where scarce resources have to be allocated among competing uses and where, as a consequence, trade-offs are required. This applies to all hard, complex decision problems.

One general contribution that economists can make is to clarify the elements of allocation decision problems, and thereby detail the information requirements for the problem to be fully specified and solvable. Put most simply, the elements consist of one or more objectives, some alternatives or options to choose from, some constraints that must not be violated, and some technical relationships describing how different options (or combinations of options) will affect the objective(s) (i.e. response functions that describe cause and effect).

Hugh Possingham (2001) (an ecologist) lists seven stages in the application of a decision theory approach.

1. Specify the management objective

2. List the management options (the decision variables)

3. Specify the current state of the system

4. Develop a model of the dynamics of the system being managed (cause-and-effect relationships)

5. Specify constraints that limit the decision variables

6. Be honest about what we don’t know (specify ranges of uncertainty)

7. Find solutions to the problem

To these I would add:

8. Investigate the sensitivity of the solutions to changes that reflect our uncertainty about the parameters of the problem.

Economists have a range of computer modelling tools available to help with steps 7 and 8.

Possingham is interested in improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of allocation decisions for environmental programs in Australia. He argues that past efforts to address environmental problems have not been efficient because, often, the problem is not properly posed, objectives are not clearly stated, constraints are not identified and relevant theory and data are not used in decisions. In other words, people have not taken a thorough and systematic approach to decision making.

To illustrate the potential gains from a more thorough and rigorous approach, consider the BushTender pilot program conducted by the state government in Victoria. They found that an improved allocation process for funding to protect remnant vegetation, with greater attention to maximising outcomes per dollar spent, can dramatically increase the resulting environmental benefits (Stoneham et al. 2003). Compared with the approach used in typical schemes to encourage fencing of remnant vegetation, and using a particular system for rating the environmental outcomes, the BushTender approach improved the cost-effectiveness of environmental expenditure by between 7 fold and 30 fold. That is a dramatic increase in environmental outcomes for a given level of expenditure.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Possingham, H. 2001. The business of biodiversity: applying decision theory principles to nature conservation. Tela Paper No. 9, Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne.

Stoneham, G., Chaudhri, V., Ha, A. and Strappazzon, L., 2003. Auctions for conservation contracts: an empirical examination of Victoria’s BushTender trial. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 47: 477-500.

17 – Thinking like an economist 1: Anticipating and explaining economic behaviour

You will probably be surprised that my starting point in this discussion of how to think like an economist is a book called The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science by Steven Mithen.

“In general, the Modern Humans of the Upper Palaeolithic [i.e. late stone age, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago] appear to have had a significantly greater ability to predict the movements of animals and to use that knowledge in their hunting strategies. How were they managing to do this? The answer lies in … anthropomorphic thinking. This is universal among all modern hunters and its significance is that it can substantially improve prediction of an animal’s behaviour. Even though a deer or a horse may not think about its foraging and mobility patterns in the same way as Modern Humans, imagining that it does can act as an excellent predictor for where the animal will feed and the direction in which it may move.” (Mithen, 1996, pp. 191-192).

When I read this I was struck by how applicable it is to the way most economists think about other people when we wish to predict their behaviour. Just like hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic, we economists generally start by assuming that the subjects of our attentions will behave just as we would ourselves in the same circumstances. Perhaps this should be called “economorphic” thinking.

Behaving “just as we would” means conducting a systematic and thorough weighing up of the pros and cons (i.e. the benefits and costs, broadly defined) of alternative courses of action, and choosing the action with the highest net benefits. That’s what economists seek to do when they use their models to help people make decisions, and it influences the mindset for most economists in their everyday lives. You may be surprised at how often economists trot out some economic theory or jargon when talking to each other about everyday matters. They tend to do it in a semi-joking way, but it’s not purely a joke – it’s a way of thinking.

Of course, non-economists don’t often do this systematic and thorough weighing up of benefits and costs. But like Mithen’s hunters, economists get a lot of milage out of assuming that they do. It seems simplistic, and perhaps even simple minded, but it is a powerful device. Very often the results from models that use the “thorough weighing up” assumption conform to an aggregated version of reality. Clearly an assumption doesn’t have to be literally and completely true to be useful. It just has to be true enough for model outcomes to be consistent with trends of behaviour across populations. This is not nearly so demanding a requirement as complete and literal truth.

Most economists apply economorphic thinking in what are recognisably economic contexts: consumption decisions by consumers and production decisions by business managers. Some, however, stretch the envelope. The grand champion of economorphic thinking is Gary S. Becker, who has applied it to issues as diverse as marriage, crime, immigration, baseball, religion and drugs. There is a collection of 138 essays by him in his book called The Economics of Life. The success of his approach can be gauged by the fact that he won the Nobel prize for economics in 1992.

Interestingly, economists aren’t the only discipline playing this game. Evolutionary biologists have taken to using an identical strategy and even some of the same models to explain the course of evolution. They assume that individual organisms will, on average, in the long term, operate in a benefit-maximising way (where the benefit in question is the successful passing on of their genes). They build this assumption into complex models and let the implications play out, resulting in some fantastic insights into observed evolutionary results. For examples, see The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

More recently, evolutionary psychologists are doing something rather similar similar to explain aspects of human psychology. Check out one of my absolutely favourite books, How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. This is some real irony in this, as economists have sometimes been criticised for paying too little attention to psychology.

Having said all this, as an economist I think it is important that don’t we take our simplifying assumptions too seriously. It is always tempting, but not wise, to believe your own publicity. We can use simple behavioural assumptions to help generate interesting and useful insights into likely human behaviour, but should always remember that the totality of human behaviour is vastly more complex and subtle. When used for forecasting, our models suggest likely trends in behaviour across the population, but not much more than that.

I also have long thought that economics should worry more about the realism of its assumptions and attempt to develop more detailed, sophisticated and accurate models of human behaviour. In the last few years this has started to happen in a big way, with the emergence of experimental economics as a large and exciting field of research. This is moving us closer to psychology and psychologists. It is complemented by agent-based modelling, which represents individual economic agents interacting, not just an amorphous mass of people aggregated to form a supply curve or a demand curve. I predict that these two new areas will have major impacts on economics over the next 50 years, but that the simpler approach of economorphic thinking will continue to be very useful and instructive.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Becker, G.S. and Becker, G.N. (1997). The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life, McGraw-Hill, New York.

Dawkins, R. (1978). The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, New York.

Mithen, S. (1996). The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Phoenix, London, 357 pp.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the Mind Works, Norton, New York.

16 – The election and the environment

Last week I attended the National Landcare Awards in Canberra. A highlight of the night was hearing the MC, Julie McCrossen from ABC Radio National, repeatedly refer to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Warren Truss, as “my beautiful assistant”. The lovely Warren was actually a stand-in for the Prime Minister, who made a last-minute decision that the Landcare Awards were less important than meeting the triumphant Australian Olympic team arriving back in Sydney. This decision was not unrelated to the fact that it was the first week of the national election campaign. [p.s. 09/09/04 I shouldn’t be put out. This week the Prime Minister didn’t even attend “the Prime Minister’s Science Awards”.] Currently it looks like the vote will be close, so there is a high and ever-present risk that one side or the other will come up with ill-considered, poorly designed and inefficient policies (to complement the existing set) in their desperation to attract voters.

So far the environment has featured higher than usual in the election debate. It started when Peter Garrett, former singer for the band Midnight Oil, joined the Australian Labor Party in a blaze of publicity some months ago. He has been a prominent advocate for environmental issues and presumably the aim was that he would attract voters with environmental concerns to the Labor Party. Surprisingly he has since been almost invisible in the national media. I don’t recall seeing a single article or interview featuring him. Perhaps the party is still learning to trust him. [p.s. 09/09/04 I saw him give a long interview on a panel show on television last night.]

In the first week of the campaign, the environment featured in the form of talk about protection of old-growth forests in Tasmania from logging. It’s a very narrow version of “the environment”, but at this stage it looks like all we are going to get in the way of new environmental policies or positions. (I don’t think the Prime Minister’s comments qualify as a “policy” yet, more like an expression of interest.) [p.s. 09/09/04 The Labor party has since pledged to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol.]

In the last couple of days the government has been attacking the Greens (the political party) quite virulently, a sure sign that the Greens are doing well in the polls. Yesterday the deputy Prime Minister told us that the Greens were effectively a bunch of communist sympathisers. Talk about playing the man rather than the ball. What specifically is wrong with their policies, Mr Anderson?

That seems to be about it so far. But we’ll see politicians at every possible public event over the next month, including events with an environmental flavour. Apart from Warren Truss, there were several at the Landcare awards, including leader of the Greens, Bob Brown. The awards had an undercurrent of self promotion and self justification of the Landcare program. I don’t think that was election related, but the style of getting the maximum possible mileage out of some dodgy “facts” and figures would have been very familiar to politicians.

As the nominees for each award were announced by Julie McCrossen, photos of them were projected onto huge screens. For my nomination for the Landcare Research award, I had provided an ironic photo of me pouring salt onto a plant.

Julie commented lightly to the audience that this seemed to be “not the idea”. I didn’t win the award, but I decided to reply to Julie’s comment through the medium of a limerick, since she was running a limerick competition through the evening. She liked it, and it was one of the few she read out to the assembled dignitaries and big wigs. Here it is.

Julie thought I was playing a trick

Pouring salt on a plant in the pic

But my case I will plead

For the plant was a weed

So I’m not such a terrible dick

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2005). Farm, food and resource issues: politics and dryland salinity, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45: 1471-1480. Full journal paper (103K) Summary version (19K)